Wide, calm rivers and huge freshwater lakes provide some of the most energy-efficient shipping routes in the world. Maritime transportation in general is the most fuel-efficient freight transportation sector -- and inland barges are the cleanest of the crop. A single diesel-powered towboat can push 15 fully loaded barges carrying the equivalent of 225 rail cars or 870 truckloads while burning a fraction of the fuel and emitting far less greenhouse gas.
Nothing comes close to inland barges for fuel efficiency. An inland barge can carry a ton of cargo 514 miles (827 kilometers) on a single gallon of fuel. The closest competitor is rail which can go 202 miles (325 kilometers) on a single gallon, less than half as efficient as inland barge. Trucks can only manage 59 miles (95 kilometers) per ton of cargo, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The Green Test: Inland Barges vs. Conventional Trucks
According to the National Waterways Council, rail transport emits 39 percent more carbon dioxide per ton-mile (the emissions generated when shipping a ton of cargo a single mile) than inland barges and conventional trucks emit a whopping 371 percent more carbon dioxide per ton-mile.
Because of their slow speed and solid construction, barges are also one of the least likely vessels to trigger a toxic spill. According to a five-year study of barge traffic on the upper Mississippi River, only one-half of one percent of spills was attributed to commercial navigation. During that same period, inland barges transported 4.9 billion gallons (18.5 billion liters) of liquid cargo.